For those not in the field, architecture can seem like a discipline reserved for the experts, where we can only take the buildings and environment around us at face value. But the truth is, when thought of as design, architecture manifests itself in so many ways beyond building plans and engineering, arising in almost every aspect of our life, constantly evolving as the human race progresses.
To get a better idea of what exactly all that means, well, that’s what the annual Archifest is all about. Organised by the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA), Archifest is Singapore’s biggest festival dedicated to celebrating and discussing the architecture that’s all around us. Taking place throughout the month of October in a hybrid format, this year’s festival centres on the theme of ‘Design Evidence’, inviting attendees to debate, discover and redefine what architecture could be.
Following on from its previous edition in 2020, Archifest 2021 still finds itself taking place in the midst of a pandemic, presenting a host of organisational challenges to deal with during the planning and execution stages. In speaking to Festival Director Ar. Razvan Ghilic-Micu and Festival Curator (Arts & Culture) Jane Chua, we got to know them as esteemed educators and champions of architecture, and how they’ve been approaching Archifest, education and architecture as a whole in the new normal.
While both Razvan and Jane recognise that the pandemic has overall been devastating, there is an air of optimism about them, all smiles as they explain the silver lining behind the restrictions, and seeing it as an opportunity to innovate, rather than despair. “The pandemic has forced us to adjust all aspects of life, and to accept that we were moving into a new normal where we had to adapt,” says Razvan. “In planning the festival, we had to futureproof it, and provide a degree of elasticity in case things didn’t go according to plan.”
“But in many ways, that has opened up a lot more possibilities as well,” he adds. “With our main conference virtual, we’re reducing our carbon footprint in terms of resources. If we can’t go into buildings, then we have outdoor events like paddling along the shorelines, or touring the precincts. We are not responding directly to COVID, but evolving the festival, and trying to create meaningful experiences in the new normal.”
Much like the range of possibilities architecture offers, Archifest’s programming reaches far and wide, focusing on diversity, where there is likely to be an event or talk that will resonate with someone out there. Everything from coffee to cats will be a part of the festival, so even those without any building knowledge at all will find something to latch onto. Jane in particular, will be moderating the A Home For Our Cats talk, ironic since she does not currently own a cat, but a dog.
“Don’t worry, I’ve had cats under my care before,” she defends herself with a laugh (Razvan vouches for her, and says he’s met several in the past). “Plus, there are other speakers who are all animal lovers, all of whom have the credentials to make them experts on the topic.”
But really, the point is diversity in the festival’s offerings, which Razvan says has received incredibly positive feedback. “There’s been tremendous response from the community and our partners, in part from how the festival crafts a 360-degree view on how architecture and design ties into life, and the world around us,” says Razvan.
“It’s important to get as many people excited as possible, and we’ve seen how the festival has taken on a life of its own, shaped by people taking ownership of it and making it theirs. The curators do determine the narrative of the festival and enrich it, but each individual event has its own personality, and has the capability of generating its own buzz. Our job is to grow these ideas by putting the right people in place.”– ArchiFest 2021 Director Razvan Ghilic-Micu.
Razvan cites the example of singer Joanna Dong releasing a playlist that links local songs to local places, and how it rallied the musical community, and listeners to talk about how the city has shaped who we are. Razvan even mentions how there were some truly innovative plans that the team conceptualised, but fell through due to logistics.
This included an idea that considered the lack of international travel this year, where attendees would instead receive a ‘passport’, and they would go on a sort of pilgrimage around Singapore, visiting various foreign embassies. “It’s almost like they’d be stepping on international soil and perhaps, even have some activities at each one,” says Razvan. “Maybe it’s something we can still consider for future editions of the festival.”
“Planning always begins with brainstorming a pool of ideas without restraint, some of which do grow legs and get programmed,” he adds. “The conversations we’re trying to generate aim to be diverse and inclusive. And to do that, it’s about respecting our audiences, and giving them credit to be able to wrestle with sophisticated and intelligent ideas that arise in our programmes. Sometimes the response surprises us; we thought certain programmes would resonate more with Gen X, but then you see young people connecting to that as well.”
Jane concurs, and elaborates more on the festival’s move to bring in younger audience members to expose them to architecture earlier in their lives. “We do have programmes and initiatives, like offering student price tickets to the conference, while also organising events like the dialogue by the Young Architect’s League,” says Jane. “There’s a lot to learn for and from the youths, whether it’s the student design competitions, or the screenings at The Projector. But really, there’s so much information to mine based on your interests and predilections, and people from all walks of life have gravitated to the festival.”
Perhaps the reason why Razvan and Jane work so well together and share so many common values is because they’ve been friends for so long, all the way back to their university days (‘Mortal enemies, actually!’ Jane interrupts jokingly.) But it really is a miracle that despite their varying backgrounds and winding life journeys through various countries, they’ve remained connected and stayed in touch for so long, before eventually reaching this same, common ground once again, in Singapore as fellow designers and educators.
“Myself, Jane, and Festival Coordinator Jia Xin were in Princeton together at the same time, and we’ve been close friends ever since,” says Razvan. “Not only do we share common friends, but we’re also aligned in our ambitions, values and our goals in life, alongside our passion for the architecture discipline and design,” he continues. “There’s been a sense of community that’s only grown over the last decade with each other, bearing witness to each other’s lives and stories, and it really means a lot to us to do this festival together, with people who have so much mutual respect and admiration for each other, and it places this emotional importance on what we do.”
“It’s interesting how all of us eventually set up base here in Singapore,” says Jane. “I was born and bred in Singapore, but chose to leave for a while before returning. I always had an interest in knowing what else was out there, and wanted to go overseas and be exposed to different cultures, pedagogical models, and become a better designer and person. I had my time in America, a few short stints in Japan, and it’s been so enriching to see how different the academic environments have been, before bringing that back to Singapore.”
“For myself, I started my journey in architecture as a freshly naturalised Canadian – having been born and raised in Romania – before moving to the States for my graduate studies at Princeton,” says Razvan. “Having called so many different places home over time, and being perceived simultaneously at times as a true local, at times as a complete foreigner, I’ve really adopted this realisation that we have a responsibility for people around you regardless of background, and use that as a base to contribute productively to society.”
Both Razvan and Jane work as adjunct lecturers across institutes like NUS’ Department of Architecture, and pride themselves on their position as educators, and the opportunity to shape their students’ value system and world view at this critical juncture of their growth. There’s almost this sense of duty they carry with them to contribute to the next generation of architects, while carrying an immense love for the discipline, one they hope to impart to their students.
“We can teach skills of course, but because of how fast things develop, they’re likely to be obsolete before long. But what does remain are the values that they carry with them for a lifetime,” says Razvan. “And of these values, empathy is the most important one, because it gets you to look at things from a different perspective, and see the broader picture.
“Princeton has this motto, “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity”, and develops a certain value system where you ask yourself what you can do for others, check your privilege, and see how you can use that to contribute. It’s about how you can push yourself and others forward to make the environment around you better, something we try to impart to our students as well.”– ArchiFest 2021 Director Razvan Ghilic-Micu.
“It’s important not to think of higher education as a continuation of high school, but the first steps into becoming an independent adult in society with your own agency,” says Jane. “And that can be incredibly taxing for a young person, because they have to develop their own value system to assess their situation, make decisions, and be ‘useful’ to society.”
Adding on to that, Jane shares her own experience of transitioning from high school to university, and how she herself had to adjust her thinking, such that she would become more open to the possibilities architecture offers. “One thing we like to ask students is their motivation behind studying architecture, and what they hope to get out of it,” says Jane.
“I had a bit of a culture shock when entering architecture school myself, because I realised that just being the ‘good student’ was no longer good enough. There are certain issues and concepts you grapple with that no longer have a ‘right’ answer, because that’s what design is, a discipline that requires some complexity and subjectivity.” As a result, when I teach, I have to spend some time each semester ‘reprogramming’ students’ expectations of what architecture school is.”
“I try to emphasise that the learning process is about committing to making discoveries, and being ok with occasional failures. That’s how you learn, and how you develop more interesting and complex outcomes. Architecture school is a safe space to sandbox and experiment, where you develop soft skills, find your own approaches towards problem solving, and craft an independent position towards issues in the world.”– Festival Curator (Arts & Culture) Jane Chua.
Living in a perfectionist society, where excellence is a source of pride and failure was rarely tolerated in our school days, Razvan and Jane are both aware of the immense pressure to perform well academically as well, with the grades to show for it. “It’s hard, but sometimes, you just have to let your guard down to get better,” he says. “This applies to both teachers and students, to start a discussion and let others in. Even if you’re successful at something, try something different, allow yourself to fail, then grow and learn from it.”
The role of an educator is a multi-faceted one. After all, one is not simply dispensing pure information, but also acting as a mentor, a guide, and possibly, source of inspiration to bring out the best in every student under your care, recognising and nurturing the potential that lies within each person. “To grow, you have to allow for the space to make mistakes, for awkward silences, and to ask questions without necessarily knowing the answer,” says Razvan.
“When I set up assignments, I go in with the intention to put students on a journey of discovery, and discover alongside them,” he adds. “Even though I’m older, I still don’t have all the answers. All I have is the ability to guide them, and help them learn to be thinkers in their own right. No project is an uninterrupted boulevard of green lights, and it’s so rewarding to see someone discover things for the first time, sometimes mindblowing even to us. Let your guard down and be foolish, put your ideas out there to debate, otherwise you won’t take as much away from the classroom as you could.”
“Intellectual friction is so important, to challenge each other’s ideas and provoke thought,” says Jane. “It is always better to put something out there than not at all, something that elicits a certain reaction, even if it could be foolish, and silence is what we fear most. Yes, some ideas may not match your success criteria for a certain topic, but it’s never ‘bad’; it may just find its purpose somewhere else instead, and it’s about reworking the framework and context.”
“To promote that, I try to get to know students on the first day, and ask what they care about, their goals, and understand their process and personality,” she continues. “Only then can I think about how I can help them achieve those goals, as an educator, and help them discover other experiences along the way, and ensure they have the skills and ability to take them there, and be competitive on a global level. Even when students aren’t sure of what they want, I try to nudge them into a more employable or competitive individual in the market.”
At the same time, Razvan and Jane recognise that this can only happen in a safe space, something both of them aim to create within the school environment. With the stereotype that architecture students don’t sleep, there is the ever-present concern that students are facing burnout with the workload they bear, yet wear their stress and burdens like a badge of pride.
“We’re always emphasising the importance of mental health and physical well-being as a foundation for good work,”ays Jane. “I don’t subscribe to the notion that you have to be a starving artist and suffer for your work. If you yourself aren’t in a healthy environment, how can you foster and design a healthy space for others? That’s why I try to speak to my students, and understand if they’re coping, or if their workload in other modules is hindering their ability to produce work.”
“Education is a design process in and of itself, where we assess our personal experiences, and try to identify our own shortcomings, responding to that to engender a better outcome. It helps the process when these students feel more seen and appreciated, and for us to understand them as fully formed students with their own interests.”– Festival Curator (Arts & Culture) Jane Chua.
“As educators, we have to see all these students and characters in our studio, and help them do what’s best for them without having them burn out,” Razvan chimes in. “Those that are already good but coasting, it’s about giving them additional motivation to push themselves even further. It’s like a rowing team, where you know how to align the rowers, and your students will benefit from your reading their personalities and attending to their needs.”
“A lot of us would be lying if we said we didn’t suffer burnout or breakdowns before, but it needs to stop being a badge of pride” he adds. “We need to become more open about it, and in a meaningful way where people feel comfortable enough discussing it. It’s not fair to just accuse people of being part of the ‘strawberry generation’, because the world around us has become so intense, you’re constantly dealing with people and noise, so school should be about creating a safe space where they can grapple with that, to focus and process those thoughts.”
That nurturing process is a constant throughout the limited time they have with their students, and comes with the desire to impart soft skills to their students as well. Architecture as a discipline is never just about the technical knowhow, but also the ability to present one’s ideas, thought process, and design principles, something both Razvan and Jane know all too well with their industry experience, and hope to prepare their students for once they graduate and enter the working world.
“Your portfolio is important, but it’s just as important to talk to the person who made it to get a true sense of what it could be,” says Razvan. “Architects must be able to take listeners on the journey that leads them to their desired outcome, and let others see and understand how they think. Most design practices would want people to demonstrate that thinking ability. And even if you yourself can’t execute it fully, if you find the right collaborator, all you need is to communicate the right idea to bring it to life.”
But none of this can be taught overnight, and it really is up to the teacher to provide the framework for developing the students’ talent, and for the students to take the initiative and push themselves towards self-development, and become the best version of themselves they can be. “I’ve never believed in the idea of ‘creative juices’; back in school, I never felt like I could just sit down and dream up something on the spot,” says Razvan, thinking about the idea of whizkid architects.
“Creativity is more about hard work and diligence, and an intuitive process. Great design isn’t something predetermined up front, but something that needs to percolate and accumulate in terms of ideas and testing. You need time and patience, and it’s up to the individual to manage time and energy to make the process work, something that we hope they will learn by the time they graduate.”
Of course, the pressure comes right around back to Razvan, Jane and their team again during Archifest itself, when they play moderators for several panels, and both their students and members of the public arrive to attend events like the Annual Conference. Taking place from 12th to 14th October, the conference is the festival’s anchor event, and features 9 hours over 3 days of dialogues with prestigious speakers. including Rossana Hu, Founding Partner of Neri & Hu, Shanghai; Brandon Clifford, the Director of the M.Arch Program at MIT, Cambridge MA and TED Fellow; Kunle Adeyemi, Founding Principal of NLÉ, Amsterdam-Lagos; Xavier De Kestelier, Head of Design Technology and Innovation at Hassell in London; and Ong Ker Shing, Principal of Lekker Architects Singapore and Director of the BA Architecture Programme at NUS.
Each day of the conference will approach Design Evidence from a different perspective, aligned with the work and creative ethos of the speakers, with dialogues including Old Worlds, New Futures – Can we look back to move forward?, with Rossana Hu, Toshiki Hirano, and Brandon Clifford; Ecosystems – Everything is connected, with Bonnie Shaw, Srilalitha Gopalakrishnan and Xavier De Kestelier; and Contextual Innovation – Act local, think global, with Ong Ker-Shing, Otto Ng & Kunlé Adeyemi.
While the speakers are certainly the highlight, both Razvan and Jane recognise the often forgotten importance of moderators, and share more about the little-discussed complexities of the role. After all – one will rarely remember a good moderator, but will always bear a grudge against a bad one. Furthermore, these panels seem especially daunting, given their almost three hour duration, with three speakers to moderate and handle within the same session. “These are long panels, but we’re not going to be chit chatting for three hours at a stretch,” says Razvan. “The speakers are given time to present their work, postulate a few hypotheses, and let the audience have some time to think about what they’d like to ask.”
“Our role as moderators is to ensure the speakers are comfortable and open up,” he adds. “Being a moderator is kind of like being the conductor to an orchestra, where the moderator must gel it all together and design the environment for the audience. You have to plan out the right questions to ask, adapt on the spot to challenge them with that productive intellectual friction, while still respecting that they’re still the stars of the show. And more importantly, there is an ideal moderator for each panel, where you have to find the right person to build the chemistry.
“A ‘good’ moderator doesn’t have to have extensive knowledge, but it’s important for them to strike up conversation with ease, while also having enough intelligence, personality, loquaciousness, and approachability to make it a smooth process. There really is no manual to it; you have to keep your ears open to the ideas generated, and use that to make the conversation an engaging one.”– ArchiFest 2021 Director Razvan Ghilic-Micu.
Good moderators then, often do invisible work when at their best. “Think of a moderator like a picture frame,” says Jane. “People go to a gallery to see the painting, the speakers, and we’re there to frame the content in the best way possible. And just like a painting, where you need to consider the proportions, colour and backdrop, you need to be aware of all the elements outside that can enhance the conversation as well. Especially in a virtual setting, we’re the hype person, and we have to build up the rapport between speakers and in the room. We come in willing to listen to learn as much as the audience is, and pose questions to reflect and shape what the audience gets out of the session.”
“In essence, we’re trying to make sure our audience walks away with the idea of discovery, something that the moderator has facilitated through good talking points about design and development,” she continues. “It really is about striking a balance between understanding the speakers’ characters, while also having a portfolio of soft skills to engage them. We have to be aware of where conversations might lead, and let speakers fill those blanks in a way non-experts would never be able to, with their richness and experience.”
To carry on Jane’s art metaphor, we think about how entering a panel is at times like appreciating fine art. You come in wanting to take something away from the experience, but may very well struggle to make meaning out of what you’re seeing in front of you, or know exactly what you want. The moderator’s role is to guide the conversation towards where it should be going, to allow the speakers to say what they need to say, and provide an educational, enriching experience for the audience.
“A good moderator is a proxy for the audience in the room, because they would be able to ask questions that match what the audience wants to know,” says Razvan. “Of course, we do have some ideas in mind on how we want to probe the speakers, and come back to the festival theme of Design Evidence, and we don’t walk in blind. But if you over prepare, it’ll end up sounding very rigid. It’s a live conversation, so it’s important to anchor the beginning and be alert and skilled enough to influence the conversation to where it should naturally go.”
To end off our interview, we posed the most difficult question of all to them both: “what does architecture mean to them?”, one of Archifest’s key questions it hopes to provoke attendees to think about. “Architect Liz Diller once said ‘architecture is not what you think it is’,” says Razvan. “It sounds like a very opaque and obnoxious answer, but having known her as a thesis advisor in school, you’ll realise that she comes from a place of always trying to test, sample and discover new things, never settling for a fixed answer or definition, because then you’d already close your avenues for what’s next.”
“This question was actually an essay topic that some professors in Princeton actually set for first year architecture students, and it was and still remains one of the hardest questions to answer,” comments Jane. “What we can do however, is to consider architecture’s agency and role, and how it changes the world and adds value to it. I always think back to the old National Library building, and how it makes me think of what architecture is capable of: a form of experience and stories brought on by elements introduced into the environment, shaping our lives.”
“Architecture doesn’t have a specific definition, but it encapsulates so many ideas and fields. It is not a single object, but a field that encompasses all the ways we build the world, whether it’s designing policy, cities, or even a teaspoon. Ultimately, we are looking for design evidence on what it could do, and find ways for the discipline to continue to evolve, in the process allowing ourselves and our ideas to evolve.”– ArchiFest 2021 Director Razvan Ghilic-Micu.
It’s clear from our conversation that both Razvan and Jane love architecture in every sense of the word – designers not only of buildings, but experiences. As educators aiming to bring out the best in their students, they too extend that approach to Archifest, with the belief that curious members of the public can learn to appreciate architecture with the right design in mind. All you need is a little empathy to start seeing things from their perspective, a little creativity to come up with the right ideas to execute, and before you know it, you’ve got yourself a blueprint for success.
Archifest 2021 runs from 1st to 31st October 2021. More information available here